WASHINGTON — Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow urged fellow university presidents to demand immigration reform during a Friday speech at the American Council on Education’s annual gathering.
Bacow, an outgoing board member of ACE, also received a lifetime achievement award from the organization prior to delivering his remarks during a keynote event on the second day of the conference.
Standing in front of a podium at the Marriott Marquis hotel, less than one mile from the White House, Bacow decried the “deeply disturbing” sense of “paralysis in our capital around issues of immigration.”
“Unfortunately, at this point, in determining who was worthy of entrance into this country, the U.S. seems to increasingly prefer or give preference to those who speak English, those who come with highly valued demonstrable skills, and those who come with sufficient resources to ensure that they never become wards of the state,” he said.
Bacow stressed that institutions of higher education depend on immigration.
“We limit immigration, I believe, at our peril,” Bacow said. “Why? Because first of all, immigration furthers our national interest, but perhaps even more importantly, immigration defines our national identity.”
Bacow pointed to his own identity as the son of Jewish refugees who arrived in the U.S. without demonstrable skills, resources, or fluency in English, “as living proof that what we do — that education — has the capacity to transform lives.”
“Where else can you go literally in one generation from off the boat with nothing — my mother’s 20 years old when she gets here, one suitcase — to grow up and have the kind of life and opportunity that I have enjoyed?” Bacow added. “Immigration made my life possible.”
In his speech, Bacow also touted some of his proudest accomplishments as president of the University, discussing Harvard’s support for a Palestinian student who was initially deported by U.S. immigration authorities upon his arrival in the country to start college.
He also pointed to the joint lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over their decision to expel international students during the Covid-19 pandemic — which led to DHS and ICE to rescind the order.
Bacow, however, insisted that these victories were not achieved on their own.
“I always say that no individual accomplishes anything on their own — and it’s true about institutions as well,” he said. “We were backed in this effort by ACE, we were backed in this effort by all the higher education associations, we were backed in this effort by countless colleges and universities.”
In highlighting the accomplishments of the University under his tenure as president, Bacow pointed to a series of student and staff success stories.
Bacow spoke in particular about Calixto Sáenz, a former Harvard Medical School cashier who is now director of HMS’ microfluidics core facility. He pointed to Sáenz’s story as emblematic of the University’s support for workers through the Bridge Program, an adult education and training program that offers English language classes, citizenship test review, and other resources for Harvard workers.
“The Bridge Program is aimed really at our employees — and employees who really are sort of menial employees,” Bacow said. “It’s an extraordinarily effective program.”
With just over two months left in his presidency, Bacow’s speech Friday echoed a note on which he began his presidency. In both his keynote speech this weekend and his 2018 presidential installment ceremony, Bacow emphasized the importance of immigration in furthering the national interest by protecting “human capital.”
“We live in a world right now where the only true scarce capital is human capital,” Bacow said Friday, nearly a verbatim quote from his installation speech.
Bacow also pointed to the importance of including international students on college campuses to “enhance the experience of our domestic students,” during his speech on Friday.
“What our institutions do now, when we take a kid who’s had to struggle his or her entire life and we give them a good education — a great education — we are investing in the human capital that our nation needs,” he said.
But Bacow closed out his speech by redirecting attention away from Harvard and toward public universities — whose presidents, provosts, and other administrators made up a majority of the audience — praising them for “doing God’s work” and being “worthy of our support.”
“Now, if you want more examples of how this kind of work is really, really done, and done I think exceptionally well, don’t look at Harvard,” he said.
“It’s up to us to work together with you to enable the American dreams,” he said.